The Jets offensive line has been tested in recent weeks, from the likes of the Dolphins' Cameron Wake to the Steelers' combination of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Particularly in last week's 22-17 victory in the Steel City, the Green & White's offensive front has done a solid job of protecting quarterback Mark Sanchez.
But they may get their most difficult test this week when they travel to Chicago.
On the day after Christmas the Jets will go up against the Bears, who feature longtime Panthers DE Julius Peppers. He is 6'7" and 283 pounds and his reputation precedes him as he was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2002 and is a two-time All-Pro first-team selection and a five-time Pro Bowler.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan had plenty of positive words to say about him on Wednesday.
"Julius Peppers is an unbelievable player," Ryan said. "It's ridiculous. The guy shouldn't be that big, that fast, that athletic, all that kind of stuff."
Peppers, who has 89 career sacks, will be matched up with Jets Pro Bowl left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson but also with Wayne Hunter, who will be making his second career start in place of the injured Damien Woody. Hunter was largely matched up against Woodley in the Green & White's 10th victory of the season in Week 15 and helped hold him to two tackles and no quarterback hits. This week Hunter will face a much larger defensive end at certain points during the game.
"Everyone knows what Peppers can do," Hunter said. "From the game film I've seen, he switches sides. It's almost 50-50 for the most part. So I have to get some good game film on him."
Some might say that with Peppers' skills, only physical gifts can stop him. However, Hunter believes that studying the video on Peppers and the Bears might prove essential this week in preparation for the impending battle between 10-4 teams. So besides dealing with the freakish athletic gifts that Peppers possesses, what can an offensive lineman do to gear up for such a threat?
"I have to adjust my technique a little bit," Hunter said. "I can't set up the same way on him that I did on Wake or Woodley. He's a totally different animal, a totally different beast. I just have to work on that this week."
Peppers was the second overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft out of the University of North Carolina and so stayed in his home state to play for the Panthers. In only his second year, he helped anchor Carolina's defense with 46 tackles, seven sacks and three forced fumbles as they made a run to the Super Bowl. In the following six seasons, he missed the Pro Bowl only once and made a splash when he signed with the Bears this offseason.
He won't, however, be the only high draft pick on the field come Sunday. Ferguson was the fourth overall selection in the 2006 draft and the Freeport, N.Y., native has started every single game since he's been a Jet. At 6'6" and 310 pounds, the 27-year-old Ferguson can also match up physically with Peppers.
Ryan's statement about Peppers' ability is indicative of the threat he poses, even though the Jets will surely be well-prepared for him.
"He's right there in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year. It seems like he is every year," Ryan said. "He's just a tremendous player. You have to know where he is at on every snap, no question about it."